Mountain Lodges of Peru’s Machu Picchu Lodge to Lodge trek is a high-end hiking experience unique in Peru that distinguishes itself from other companies in many ways. First and foremost are its gorgeous lodges with impressive architecture and stunning views. Until 2007, trekking in the Machu Picchu area involved camping out through freezing nights at high altitudes – most people hiking the Inca trail in the high season got so cold at night that by 2-3 am they’d be up and ready to start the next days hike. It makes an immeasurable difference to have a warm room, a hot shower, a comfortable bed and hygienically-prepared three course meals.
Mountain Lodges of Peru takes the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu – an old Incan route that goes over a very high pass and slowly descends until it overlooks Machu Picchu from above. One advantage of the Salkantay route is that horses can use it to carry your baggage. There are also ‘emergency horses’ that you can ride should you have trouble crossing the pass or if you’re knees give out. Another plus is that you get to see real life as it is lived in the Andes. We saw locals passing by as they came back from the market with all their purchases strapped to the sides of horses (including live chickens with their legs fastened down with ropes and their heads popping out of the netting!).
You won’t see that type of thing on the highly regulated Inca trail. Horses were banned a number of years ago, and now it is used almost exclusively for tourists and only open to 500 people a day including porters and guides. The disadvantage of Salkantay is that the path tends to be muddier due to the number of hooves traversing it, but at the same time it has far fewer people. At one point, when I was walking through boulder fields amidst glaciers, I felt so far from the rest of the world and its troubles that I experienced the expansive freedom that only being deep in nature can provide.
Our day started early: pick up at our hotels in Cusco was at 6:45am. A four hour drive to the trailhead followed, with a stop at a small Incan ruin about halfway there. Our van got stuck in thick mud just short of the trailhead outside Mollepata, so we started our hike from there while the driver and crew ingeniously found a way to get out using adobe bricks. The hike to the first lodge began around the same altitude as Cusco (3350 meters or 11,000 feet) and went 400 meters straight up over a pass until flattening out the rest of the way to the lodge.
We got our first taste of hiking at high altitude with less oxygen when we started uphill, as most of us experienced the heavy breathing, racing heartbeat, and frequent stops to catch our breath that are common with newcomers here. Luckily our guides Javier and Miguel were very patient and professional, and kept encouraging us to go at our own pace and take small steps. When my boyfriend wasn't feeling well due to altitude sickness, Javier responsibly suggested he take the van to the lodge as the first day's hike was optional.
Javier led the way and set the pace while Miguel brought up the rear with those who were struggling more. Miguel would say, “slowly, slowly” as we ascended. Following him was our main horseman, Don Mercindo – an older gentleman who was always smiling, helpful and extremely patient. He also threw people's day packs on the horses when they needed a rest.